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Background image: Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Get the presidents off our money

A growing number of people are becoming aware of the national movement to replace Andrew Jackson’s face on the $20 bill with the face of someone less male, less presidential, less white, less racist, less slave-owning and less a-lot-of-other-things that the former president (1829-1827) represents.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic senator from New Hampshire, has introduced a bill in Congress to accomplish that, although I was surprised to learn that the Secretary of the Treasury (currently Jacob Lew) already has full legal authority to decide whose faces are on our paper money.

The restrictions on Lew’s choices under 31 U.S. Code § 5114 (b), should he or a successor choose to exercise their authority, are minimal:

  • The person must be dead.

  • The person’s name must be below the portrait (this one just makes me wonder if anybody in Congress favored the top or the side and why anyone thought such specific instruction was necessary).

The idea to wipe Jackson’s face off the face of the twenty is just a small step in the right direction. I’d like to outline what that direction should be and why:

  • Continue the dead people rule. It’s good to let some time pass to better put a person’s achievements in a historical context.

  • Eliminate the faces of all publicly elected officials from currency and coins. They are important, and they have their historical place. But waaaay too much public naming is monopolized by the pols who do the naming. Ours is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people. The officials on our money now were given that honor to remember them as important figures in national history, but the most important elected officials in national history are already memorialized in thousands of other ways. There are many streets, schools, towns, counties, a state and a national capital named after George Washington (who's also on the dollar bill and the quarter). He was a good guy and is not in danger of falling through a historical crack. Neither is Abraham Lincoln (the penny and the $5 bill), a president of equal stature, although I think even Nebraskans – deep in their hearts – would agree their capital city’s name is a consolation prize compared to Washington’s. Grover Cleveland and the $1,000 bill? I’m not that familiar with either, but that may be just as well. He wasn’t even the namesake of Ohio’s second-largest city – a distant relative was.

  • Copy the European Union’s practice of honoring significant contributors from fields other than political office-holding and warfare (there are enough guys with swords on horseback in town squares) in each of its member countries. It’s time to bury the concept that presidents and generals have made it possible for us to be who we are. Women, people of color, poets, scientists, social workers and many others have made enormous contributions to how the United States has developed as a nation and what it has become – and their contributions have fallen through the cracks.

  • Make the appearance on U.S. money represent election to a new National Hall of Fame. There are six coins and eight circulated paper notes in our money that would represent the class of 14 people to be inducted by national popular vote (no Electoral College crap) every four years, midway in the presidential election cycle. A slate of nominees would be prepared by a national panel of historians and the election campaign would become, in effect, a national history discussion. Older coins and bills would always be legal tender, but every four years, all money would get a newly elected class of Hall of Fame inductees. Tack the old bills up on a big Hall of Fame wall in the Smithsonian to remember them by. The national history discussion would be renewed, a much more comprehensive range of deserving people would be recognized and maybe more history majors would find work.

  • Citizenship should not be a criterion. We are not a private club like Switzerland; we are a nation of immigrants that has borrowed ideas from abroad as well as developing our own. The historic figures on our money should reflect that heritage, which should be a reminder that we aren't the inventors of everything good in the world. I can see a case for Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who wrote the Magna Carta, the English ancestor of our Bill of Rights; for Christopher Columbus (yeah, he’s already got some American cities and a big river); and for Pierre L’Enfant who laid out Washington, D.C., our first master-planned city.

Our living nation should have a living currency that represents the full range of those people who made it what it is and speaks to the best of who we are. Too many are forgotten.

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